NORTHLIGHT GALLERY, Stromness – Nov 30th -Dec 8th 2019
By Simona Cain
What do we expect to take away from an exhibition? It might, of course, depend on what sort of exhibition it is: figurative art, for example? I don’t know about you but, personally, I expect to come away having learnt something new, enough to brood on; with a new outlook; and some aesthetic response. In other words, like any other artistic product –book, poem, piece of music – an exhibition makes the grade if it throws up questions, engages me with the subject, and stirs up some emotions into the bargain.
On Saturday 30 November, a special exhibition opened at the Northlight Gallery, Stromness. It is devoted to a Navy destroyer which, hit by a German mine, sank in Orkney’s rough seas on 1 March 1917. I went along to view it and spoke to Fiona Grahame, one of the minds behind this project. She has been searching for any existing records, photographs, memories, to recreate the lives and backgrounds of all the men who died on board HMS Pheasant.
I come to the tragic event and that momentous period of history from a wholly neutral standpoint. For one thing, my native country (Switzerland) was not at war. Hence, my response to it and to this exhibition is bound to be different, perhaps detached or unbiased. As I stood there, facing the exhibits, reading those faces, of men and boys, I imagined the sort of lives they had lived, how they had earned a living, their dreams and hopes for their future.
The subtitle of the exhibition: “Who were the lost men and boys?” signals the curator’s sense that not enough has been done to commemorate the 89 crewmen. On display are a number of photographic portraits, enlarged to life size – some professionally taken, some obtained from press archives.I found the impact of those black-and-white pictures particularly powerful. Credit is due to the other curator of this exhibition, Martin Laird, whose expertise admirably rescued them from the imperfect conditions of the dated originals.
There is something arresting in each of them – open faces, from the very young to the more mature. Remarkably, they are displayed without an individual caption. [A list of explanatory notes, including names and ranks, hangs in a corner between the photographs.]Why? Because, I think, no one ought to be singled out over the rest:all equally deserve attention. They deserve to be honoured and remembered regardless of their place in the hierarchy.
Once again, the focus is essentially on the human component of that event. Think of that crew, who worked together to ensure the boat’s efficient operation, as a microcosm of the society of the time. Most of them worked in different trades before they served in the war, and came from all corners of the United Kingdom and Ireland. The arts and crafts of peace were replaced by the hazardous, destructive skills of using the weaponry of war.
If those exhibits struck an inner chord of my imagination, it must be because they are infused with a sentiment that is not merely local or time-bound. They appeal to something that is neither parochial nor nationalistic, but common to us all and our human nature: humanity and solidarity. This is what makes the project worth its while. It pays tribute to those who died on board HMS Pheasant, out there,far away from home affections. This celebration of the people who died then will please and move the victims’ descendants. But it does more. It creates a moment of pause and reflection for today’s viewers, too, when war continues to be a terrible human tragedy. Other viewers like me will stop in front of these black-and-white photographs; they will look at Martin Laird’s dramatic painting of HMS Pheasant on choppy waves, and read the poems created by members of the Stromness Writing Group in memory of those men and boys who died – displayed on a separate wall of the Gallery.
Look into those eyes; let them hold your gaze. Reflect. In your imagination, conjure up a world so different from today’s, different except in the compassion that we can find in ourselves. Compassion for the hopes of those 89 men in a future – in a world with such potential for change at the start of a new century. A better one, hopefully,but one that was abruptly, grimly denied them.